Perhaps the prosaic quotes of Irving Berlin, Winston Churchill and Emerson Ralph Waldo on passages, best summarise my thoughts of the passing of one of our most resourceful comrades, writer and radical activist, Festus Iyayi, a former president, Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU),whose curtain was lowered five years ago.
Iyayi, a professor of Business Administration, University of Benin and author of the epic novel, “Violence,” was killed in November 2013 by one of the cars in the entourage of the Kogi State governor, in what appeared more like a deliberate assassination attempt, as he was headed for an ASUU meeting scheduled for Bayero University, Kano.
For Berlin (1888-1889), one of the greatest American composers and lyricists, “The song is ended but the melody lingers on”. Churchill (1874-1965), a prolific writer, winner of Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955 and two time British Prime Minister, believes that “We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give”. Waldo (1803-1882), renowned American poet, philosopher and journalist, says, “It is not the length of life but the depth of life” that matters. These three famous personalities obviously did not have the former ASUU president in mind when they rendered their thoughts but they fit perfectly on Iyayi.
I really do not believe that any man full of life can die. I also do not think that a man whose works and ideas are alive with us can die. Even though I actively participated in all the passage rites for Iyayi from the service of songs conducted by Rev Father Festus Ogbonvban at his abode in Benin City, the commendation service at the University of Benin and the funeral service, leading to the lowering of his remains at his country home in Ugbegun, Irhua in Esan Central local government of Edo state, I hardly share any thoughts that Iyayi is dead.
Little wonder I’ve virtually struggled in the last five years to do an obit on Iyayi, also a former chairman, ASUU, UNIBEN chapter for many years, because it’s simply hard for me to come to the reality of his death. Iyayi is alive. I see his thoughts weaved around our daily struggles.
Our paths first crossed 37 years ago when former Bendel State Solicitor General, S.O Giwa-Amu convened a meeting of the National Democratic Movement (NDM) in late 1981 in Benin City to deliberate on the left intervention in politics. I was then barely learning the ropes in the radical movement that Ienlisted in September, 1980. But his life has been part of me ever since.
His songs and melody lingers. His ideas and work are alive. Though he departed at 66, the depth of his contribution to revolutionary struggle in Nigeria is quite profound. His manner of death was also significant.
Iyayi left Nigeria to pursue his higher education, obtaining a M.Sc in Industrial Economics from the Kiev Institute of Economics, in the former USSR (now Ukraine), and then his Ph.D from the University of Bradford, England. In 1980, he went back to Benin and became a lecturer in the Department of Business Administration at the University of Benin.
An alumnus of both the Annunciation Catholic College(ACC), Irhua and Government College, Ughelli, Iyayi, was deeply enmeshed in ASUU agitations for increased funding of the universities as he was immersed in the struggle for a better Nigeria. He was also very active at meetings of his alumni associations. His death on the way to an ASUU meeting in Kano was apt. Like Asisi Asobie, professor of Political Science and former ASUU president observed, “In which other way should we have expected Iyayi to die?”.
He was at the vanguard of radical intellection and revolutionary struggles at UNIBEN. A great humanist, Marxist revolutionary who had profound impact on town and gown, Iyayi’s abode provided refuge for many activists.
When I was suspended along with five others on account of students’ activism at the University of Ife, (now Obafemi Awolowo University) in early 1984, and subsequently asked to vacate the campus by the school authority, I took shelter in Iyayi’s boy’s quarters on campus, which I shared with one of the comrades, Chris Akhimienmona, now in the US.
It was a vantage point to glean Iyayi as an amiable family man, as his boys played and rode bicycles around the house at their formative stage. He also struck amity with his wife, Grace, then working as a nurse at the University of Benin Teaching Hospital (UBTH).
This also provided an opportunity not only to deepen revolutionary work in the students movement but also to relate with other leading members of the Benin group like Jonathan Ihonde, Ehi Eboigbe, Tunde Fatunde, Osagie Obayuwana and others. I also got reunited with another radical lecturer, Chris Theodoropulous, formerly a law teacher at Ife Varsity, who was part of the pool of teachers headhunted by Professors Itse Sagay and David Aihe for the then fledgling Faculty of Law at UNIBEN.
So beyond staying at Iyayi’s boy’s quarters, the home of Theodoropulous, who played a significant role in the Greek students’ revolt of the early 70s and the abode of Eboigbe, then general manager, BENDEL Waterworks, whose radical evangelism had impacted on his younger siblings, Mike, Sabena and Omono, also provided refuge.
The synergy began in 1981 with the Benin movement which also extended its revolutionary launch pad to then Bendel State University (BENSU), Ekpoma, was beneficial to the campaign by Lanre Arogundade for the presidency of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) in 1984.
As Arogundade and I sauntered through the tortuous campaign drive from Ife to Benin Nsukka, Port Harcourt, Abraka, Warri and back to Benin, we were already ear shots to victory. Since NANS was then led by Chris Mamah, then a student at the University of Calabar, which was a radical fortress, Calabar was not part of our itinerary. Though as a candidate of the vanguard revolutionary students’ movement, Patriotic Youth Movement of Nigeria (PYMN), Arogundade was unassailable, we had done enough ground work for the virtual walk over at the 1984 NANS Convention held later at the University of Jos.
It was therefore no surprise that ASUU National then led by Mahmud Tukur decided to hold its crucial National Summit on the Economy in 1984 at the University of Benin. Virtually all areas of the economy were x-rayed and exhaustively discussed at that very well organised and highly stimulating conference.
And that’s why I’ve always believed that resolving the problems of Nigeria is not rocket science. This was the highpoint of our discourse as Segun Adewoye, professor of Physics, Arogundade and I drove back to Ife after the conference. It was only interrupted by the bout of pounded yam and palm wine at Ore. All the ideas for setting us on the path of concrete development which are contained in several reports across the country, are gathering dusts.
All these culminated in Iyayi, Sagay and other allies being thrown out of their campus residence in the wee hours as the ensuing battle against the authoritarian rule of then UNIBEN Vice Chancellor, Prof Grace Alele Williams reached a head.Acting in concert with forces outside the campus, the authorities were resolved that throwing out Iyayi and his family in the cold was a sure way to break his resolve and undermine the raging revolutionary struggle. But that move only embolden Iyayi and his allies.
Each time, I went on any visit through Benin City, I stopped by to engage our comrades and share ideas. Iyayi’s villa, built after his awry debacle at the campus and business office played host to several meetings of the radical movement with members coming from different parts of the country. The idea for comrades to do away with entryism and float a political party emanated from one of those meetings.
When the tour of duty took me to work as special adviser to Governor Adams Oshiomhole in October 2009, I was merely back home. Haven spent much of my growing up years in Lagos and Ife, it was quite refreshing to work in Edo state for the first time. Though I had known Oshiomhole since July 1985, when I relocated after my NYSC to Kaduna as a teacher, at Government Day Secondary School, Kawo and had to join the Kaduna movement, it was Iyayi, Femi Falana, Kayode Komolafe and other comrades who pushed my case.
The Kaduna movement which then had Festus Okoye, now a National Commissioner at the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Isa Aremu, now general secretary, National Union of Textile, Garments & Tailoring Workers of Nigeria, Abdurahman Black, former students union president, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Uyi Usuanele, then a post graduate student at ABU and others regularly met at the office of Oshiomhole, then general secretary of the textile union.
Iyayi had a great passion for consultation. He was a stickler for organisational decision and action. He was always in my office to share ideas each time he had any engagements with Oshiomhole. When I marked my golden jubilee in 2010, I could hardly think of any other person to deliver the birthday lecture. He gladly took up the assignment.
Since my 50th birthday coincided with the 50th independenceanniversary of the country, Iyayi’s 8,478 word lecture titled, “The ruling class, challenges of development and electoral reforms in Nigeria” provided an insight into how the growth and development of the country, had been stunted by a warped ruling elite. Iyayi’s ideas are alive all around us.
He employed a realistic style of writing, depicting the social, political and moral environment and system that both the rich and poor live and work in. His works, “Violence”, “The Contract”, “Heroes” and “Awaiting Court Martial,” bear testimony to his ability to weave his narration around everyday life.
So this call at mid day nudged me into some frenzy. I had no inkling anything was amiss. But shortly after I made a detour into Wemco road, Ogba, heading towards Agidingbi in Ikeja, I got a call from Idowu Awopetu, a professor of Botany formerly at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-ife. Even as I was driving, this call was too compelling for me to ignore.
“Something really terrible has happened, it’s really really terrible,” he went on and paused. Like someone who had gone into some literary hallucination, Awopetu continued, “this is a real disaster”. And I said, “Comrade, please tell me what’s really amiss. It was at that time Awopetu jolted me with the news that Festus Iyayi had been killed.